2007Director: Michael Moore
Cast: George H. W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore
hen I went to see Sicko, I sat next to a group of middle-aged, mild-mannered women who were talking softly before the movie started. Then a large picture of George W. Bush appeared on screen, and the women next to me, along with most of the theater, began jeering and laughing so loudly I couldn't hear what the President was actually saying. This continued throughout the movie. The audience enunciated each punch line not with a laugh, but with a resounding “ohhhhh!” as if this were an episode of “Yo Momma.”
You could say this is all circumstantial. But, really, I think this is what Sicko is supposed to be. Almost all the overviews and reviews I've heard of the movie begin with a phrase like, “Michael Moore: first, he took on GM. Then, he took on the NRA. Next up was the Bush administration. Now, he's setting his sights on health care.” The movie poster shows Moore putting on a doctor’s glove with a mischievous and aggressive look on his face under the tagline, “This might hurt a little.” Moore is picking a fight with someone.
Many critics have noted that Sicko is Moore's most mature work, and they praise the new observational, tragic tone he carries alongside his trademark cynicism. I agree that the opening interviews of the movie are some of the best work Moore has ever done. The first half of Sicko consists largely of individual stories of people affected by America's health care system. Moore shows people cheated out of proper financial assistance for obscure reasons, and pairs them with startling confessions by people who used to work for HMOs, describing how they received praise for denying as much financial assistance as possible. But he's only interviewing people that fundamentally corroborate his view on health care. Looking back through his films, you can see that Moore reserves the most eloquent outrage for those with whom he sympathizes.
I think this is because Michael Moore, as the ideologue that he enjoys being, has no real appreciation for journalistic research. He prefers to take a polemic than analytical approach to an issue. It's easy to see why he does this. It gives him his gruff, un-intellectual charm that's made him compelling from the beginning of his career. People didn't go to see Fahrenheit 9/11, just as I'm sure they didn't go to see Sicko, to learn anything new (you can find out very easily that socialized health care means you get treated at the hospital for free); they went because, by supporting Michael Moore, they're inherently becoming part of his rant. Through him, they're shouting at the powerful, incompetent elite they're also sick of.
In the first half of Sicko, Moore has the audience surprised, outraged, and eager to hear more, but in the second half, things start to fall apart. Instead of drawing all the strong elements of the movie together and investigating potential solutions, addressing the political conflict fully, or even using any empirical data at all, he instead takes the movie in an entirely new direction. What starts out as a humorous tangent describing Canada's health care drags into an exhaustive and questionable comparison between America and several other countries.
So we end up traveling to Europe and Cuba for another hour, coming to the same, repetitive conclusion about other nations' health care at every stop. Moore manages to keep expressing surprise every time he discovers another fact that he probably already knows about socialized institutions. He poses France in particular as a kind of paradise, where government employees wait on your every need. In one embarrassing segment, when he tries to prove his point that the high taxes that provide for extensive social services aren't a bad thing, he randomly goes to a wealthy couple's house, showing their lavishly decorated bedroom, large TV, and quaint kitchen. Then, with no real explanation as to who these people are, he leaves.
This is the kind of research Moore does. He overlooks entirely any of the recent skepticism towards France's poor economic performance, or the social tension that is tearing apart the poorer urban sections (which he never visits) of the country. Moore doesn't address any of the risks of the socialized system, focusing instead on lengthy interviews with attractive young people chatting happily about the long vacations they're able to take. He intermingles criticisms of socialism with old Communist propaganda films, collecting damning footage of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan awkwardly decrying the threat of Communism they see in socialized medicine. He reduces the other side of the debate, then, to a moment we are meant to laugh at.
This is my problem with the movie, and Michael Moore in general: he always makes the other side of an argument, however legitimate it may be, appear flustered, absurd, or entirely nonsensical. He also focuses more on partisan conflict, showing only showing politically charged figures like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Hillary Clinton, rather than analyzing or criticizing actual health care proposals. His defense for not giving any of nearly two hours of his film to health insurance companies or opponents of socialized medicine was that, in his mind, we always hear their side of the story. The assumption, therefore, is that the only way you can express your opinion on an issue is by simplifying a matter or showing your solution as the only plausible option. Moore's opinion, then, becomes the entire substance of the movie. This makes discussions about Sicko difficult because, inevitably, a criticism of its journalistic or entertainment value comes off as an attack on his opinion. I agree that America's health care system is deeply flawed; I just wish Moore did more than point that out with inane facts I already knew about European health care.
I'm also critical of this movie because I am, frankly, frightened of the legacy it's going to impart on the genre. A documentary, in my mind, should be a thoroughly researched and inquisitive work that weighs an issue and observes a conflict from both sides. In the larger picture, though, the quality of Sicko doesn't really matter. Now Michael Moore is touring around Washington with a specific health care proposal (which is never mentioned in the movie). Sicko, then, could just be a publicity stunt for Moore, a part of his equation to garnish a kind of mass-line politics for the conception of his actual proposal. Really, did it just matter to Michael Moore and his cause that the idea of Sicko circulated through the media? It can't be good when a movie becomes a glorified soapbox, and I'm hopeful that this hasn't started a new trend for all sorts of staunchly opinionated people with a large film crew and powerful charisma to make partisan devices.
Sicko is currently in wide release.
By: Yannick LeJacq
Published on: 2007-07-09